"Well, I think I've been doing it for 2,000 years now," Ted Neeley says by phone in a warm Texas drawl. "But I have never once walked on a stage and not felt like it was the very first time."
Neeley is referring to his title role in the 1973 film "Jesus Christ Superstar" and in the many subsequent theater productions of the seminal Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice rock opera.
But now the actor is ready to hang up his flowing robe and crown of thorns. At 62, he will play his signature role for the last time, in a national "farewell tour" of the show, beginning Sept. 8 at the University at Buffalo's Center for the Arts in New York.
First, though, he'll join Yvonne Elliman and Barry Dennen (the film and original Broadway show's Mary Magdalene and Pontius Pilate) in a benefit concert version of "Superstar" on Sunday at the Ricardo Montalban Theatre in Hollywood.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday August 15, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
'Jesus Christ Superstar': In Saturday's Calendar, a caption with a photograph of Ted Neeley in a 1976 production of "Jesus Christ Superstar" misidentified one of the child actors with him. The boy on the right is Scott Drnavich, not Eric Stoltz.
Other headliners are "School of Rock's" Jack Black as King Herod, Clint Holmes as Simon Zealotes and the Broadway show's original Judas, Ben Vereen. (Carl Anderson, who played Judas in the film version, died in 2004.)
"Superstar," which began as a concept album before becoming a stage and film musical, is considered by many to be Lloyd Webber and Rice's best collaborative effort.
"There's something about this piece and what it represents that keeps it fresh and alive," Neeley says.
The one-time event on Sunday was pulled together scant weeks ago, as a benefit for "YouTHeatre America," a newly formed nonprofit national theater arts program for young people founded by Jack Nakano, artistic director emeritus of the California Youth Theatre. Proceeds will also benefit the Ricardo Montalban Foundation.
Neeley couldn't pass up a chance to reunite with former cast members and, he said, to pay tribute to Nakano, whom he met 30 years ago when he, Anderson and Elliman agreed to reprise their film roles for Nakano's Santa Barbara-based Youth Theatre Productions alongside student actors.
That 1976 alfresco production ran for a month and helped Nakano launch CYT -- a nonprofit theater arts training program for ages 12 to 21 that is now based at the New Ivar Theatre in Hollywood.
Among Nakano's alums are Black, Anthony Edwards and Eric Stoltz. The new program, with its national focus, would operate separately from CYT.
"We were so excited about having the opportunity to help a youth organization provide access to kids to get into theater," Neeley said, referring to the 1976 production. "We had a beautiful time doing it."
With other CYT veterans and original cast members from the film and Broadway show, Sunday's concert version of the musical, depicting Jesus' final days, will be directed by program graduate Gary Goddard, co-founder of Landmark Entertainment Group, now head of Gary Goddard Entertainment.
Goddard, who staged the 1976 show and a reprise of that production with Neeley in 1977, had been an enthusiastic participant in the Santa Barbara program from fourth grade through high school. He and Forbes Candlish, another CYT alum, are co-producing the concert.
"I've always loved the show," Goddard said. "This is a classic piece of theater that kind of defines the whole idea of rock opera."
In recent years, Goddard said, he had been talking to the film's lead actors about a reunion show. When he heard of Nakano's newest venture, he contacted Neeley, Dennen and Elliman, who signed on immediately.
"It's been so long," Elliman commented by phone from her home in Hawaii. "You think you're over it, but it's not true."
Black got involved because of his participation in CYT, "and then Ben Vereen changed his schedule so he could do it," Goddard noted, "so it's become this amazing reunion and celebration."
With CYT in the hands of his successor, Edward Wilson, former artistic director of Britain's National Youth Theatre, Nakano is looking toward creating a different kind of program.
YouTHeatre America would help establish and complement a network of similar programs across the country. It would also serve as a clearinghouse for technical and artistic resources and advice, Nakano said.
Nakano, 73, is "a genuine, loving human being who wants to help people get involved in theater," Neeley said.
"I think he'll always remain involved in some way. It's in his blood."
`Jesus Christ Superstar'
Where: Ricardo Montalban Theatre, 1615 N. Vine St., Hollywood
When: 8 p.m. Sunday
Price: $110 to $520
Contact: (323) 462-6666, (800) 595-4TIX, www.youtheatreamerica.tix.com